A message from Father Nick 47
“The Kingdom of God is close at hand…” (2)
A century and a quarter passed between the death of St Anthony of Egypt in c 356 and the birth of St Benedict. Around the year 500, young Benedict left Rome on his own journey into solitude. Like Anthony, he was followed by others who wanted him to be their leader and, like Anthony, he responded to that need. It was Benedict’s special gift to be able to channel monastic yearning for the Kingdom into an organised, coherent way of life with its own rhythms of work and prayer.
Above all, he understood the importance of moderation in maintaining a sense of purpose. Even Barbarian warriors admired these new monasteries. As the Benedictine order grew, it sought to preserve the best of the Roman past. It also provided infrastructure and new lines of communication which shaped the map of Europe. Benedict has been called the “Midwife of the West” and has been honoured as the first patron saint of our whole continent. It was Benedictine mnks from rome who evangelised the Anglo-Saxons.
Even so, there is more to our story of living the Kingdom of God. Between the death of St Anthony and the birth of St Benedict, John Cassian, who had lived in the East, founded a monastery in Marseilles, drawing on material from the Egyptian “Desert Fathers”. This in turn influenced religious life in Celtic Britain and Ireland. Our former diocesan theologian John Barrett Davies describes how it would have affected a community in Wales:
“We must not picture a large building, but a cluster of wattle huts on stone foundations, shaped like beehives and grouped around a small wooden church. The rule St David drew up for himself and his monks was exceedingly strict, and although we cannot trace the connection, it is clear that he adapted it from the monastic rule as practised by St Martin at Tours and John Cassian at Lerins. This was the Rule of Egyptian monasticism as founded by St Anthony, and although it was intended for the genial climate of Egypt it was adopted in Gaul and Britain without the least mitigation for our much harsher climate. Daily manual labour was enjoined on every monk. The use of oxen for ploughing was forbidden, they must submit to the yoke with their own shoulders. Meat was forbidden and only one meal allowed, and that at evening, after which three hours were spent in prayer, and on the eve of the Sabbath the whole night was spent in prayer. No monk might own anything, all things are held in common and whoever should presume to speak of “my book” must do severe penance.
David seems to have acquired his nickname…David the Waterman…not for total abstinence, which would be taken for granted in such a strict order, but for his daily practice of immersing himself in cold water for long periods of prayer… The aspirant seeking admission to the monastery must first spend ten days and ten nights in humble prayer outside the monastery gates, during which time he was constantly reproached for his unworthiness, as a test of his contrition. And no doubt this extreme humility demanded from the monk was a much heavier trial to the unruly tribesmen of those days than any bodily mortification.”